The Tough Questions

How do we start?  What about students? …and isn’t it cheating to sneak in a definition after I say I’m not going to impose a definition?

floridagators3

They’ll bite!

Those were some of the smart and tough questions leveled at your humble editor last night after my talk at the University of Florida’s College of Education research symposium.  The edu-Gators (ha) were a wonderful group of scholars to talk with.  I got a chance to hear about their work in schools and archives, then I got to run my mouth a little bit about the culture-war questions that keep me up at night.

The theme of the symposium was “Strengthening Dialogue through Diverse Perspectives.”  Accordingly, I targeted my talk at the difficult challenge of talking to people with whom we really disagree.  I shared my story about dealing with a conservative mom who didn’t like the way I was teaching.  Then I told some of the stories from the history of educational conservative activism from my recent research.

University of Florida

The UF crew…

What has defined “conservative” activism in school and education?  Even though there isn’t a single, all-inclusive simple definition of conservatism—any more than there is one for “progressivism” or “democracy”—we can identify themes that have animated conservative activists.  Conservatives have fought for ideas such as order, tradition, capitalism, and morality.  They have insisted that schools must be first and foremost places in which students learn useful information and have their religion and patriotic ideals reinforced.

Underlying those explicit goals, however, conservatives have also shared some unspoken assumptions about school and culture.  Time and time again, we hear conservatives lamenting the fact that they have been locked out of the real decisions about schooling.  Distant experts—often from elite colleges and New York City—have dictated the content of schools, conservatives have believed.  And those experts have been not just mistaken, but dangerously mistaken.  The types of schooling associated with progressive education have been both disastrously ineffective and duplicitously subversive, conservatives have believed.

That was my pitch, anyway.  And the audience was wonderful.  They poked the argument (politely!) to see if it would really hold.  One student asked a tough question: Given all this history, all this poisoning of our dialogue between conservatives, progressives, and other, how do we start?  A second student followed up with another humdinger: I talked about conservative parents and school board members and leaders, but what about students?  What should a teacher do if she finds herself confronted with a student who has a totally different vision of what good education should look like?  Last but not least, a sharp-eyed ed professor wondered if I wasn’t doing exactly what I promised I wouldn’t do: Impose a definition on “conservatism” by offering a list of defining ideas and attitudes.

How did I handle them?

Well, SAGLRROILYBYGTH, your humble editor did his best, but those are really tough ones.  In general, I think the way to begin conversations with people with whom we have very strong disagreements is to start by looking at ourselves.  Are we making assumptions about that person based on things he or she isn’t actually saying?  Are we seeing them through our own distorted culture-war lenses?

And if students in class disagree with us about these sorts of culture-war principles, we need to remember first and foremost that they are our students.  If a student in my class, for example, is super pro-Trump, I want her to know first and foremost that I welcome her in my class and she is a member of our learning community.  It gets tricky, though, if a student wants to exclude other students based on these sorts of religious and ideological beliefs.

Last but certainly not least, I don’t think it’s unfair to offer themes and ideas that have defined conservatism over the years.  I’d never want to impose those definitions on historical actors, Procrustes-style.  But once we take the time to listen and learn to our subjects, we can and should suggest some things that they have had in common.

On to breakfast with graduate students and a chance to participate in Dr. Terzian’s schools, society and culture colloquium.  Bring on the coffee!

Protecting Kids from Knowledge: Transvestite Edition

P-ding!  There it is again—our ILYBYGTH alert when schools insist on blocking knowledge.

If you’re just joining us, you might be under the impression that the point of school is to teach kids stuff.   That’s partly true, but it’s not the only thing schools do.  As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are painfully aware, schools have also always worked just as hard to keep kids from knowing stuff.

Don’t believe me?  Check out the news from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district.  According to a report in the New York Times, conservatives grumbled about a new book offered for first graders, Jacob’s New Dress.  Their beef: No youngster should know that some boys like to wear dresses.  Before you assume, though, that those pesky conservatives are the only ones who want to stop kids from acquiring knowledge, read on.  In these sorts of culture-war confrontations, everyone agrees that kids should remain ignorant.  They only disagree on the details.

jacobs new dress

Knowledge-spreader? Or knowledge-blocker?

In this incarnation, the story follows the same culture-war script I described in my recent book about educational conservatism.  A teacher called a conservative group to warn them about the book selection.  The conservative activists issued press releases.  The district instantly caved at the merest whiff of controversy.

If we were feeling persnickety, we could point out a few details that individualize this case.  The conservative group in this case, the North Carolina Values Coalition, doesn’t really seem to have a clear understanding of the issues involved.  According to the NYT report, at least, the group’s spokesperson doesn’t recognize the differences between cross-dressing and transgender.  “The book,” she warned, “is meant as a tool of indoctrination to normalize transgender behavior. I think a lot of parents would object to that.”

Even if we don’t agree with her, we should note—except for the goof about equating cross-dressing with transgender—the conservative activist was correct.  The school and the book really DID want to normalize the idea that a boy might like to dress up in traditionally feminine clothing.  According to the NYT, the authors hoped to help people see that there’s nothing weird about a boy choosing to wear a dress.

For new readers, let me be clear: If anyone were to ask me my personal opinion, I wouldn’t hesitate.  I strongly agree with the goals and approach of the progressive authors.  I think kids should read their book.  But that’s not the main point here.  Instead, we want to look at the ways the progressive activists agreed with their conservative foes without even realizing it.

Just as the conservative activists read from their traditional script, so too did the progressive authors.  In the future, the authors assumed, no one would find their book objectionable or even remarkable.  As one author put it, “Our hope, when we wrote this book, was that some day it would be considered quaint. We imagined future generations saying, ‘What was the fuss about?’ Clearly, there’s more work to do.”  Just as conservatives have always hoped to lock out any hint of progressive ideas, so too have progressive activists always assumed without much evidence that their ideas would win in the end.

It might seem as if the two sides are miles apart.  When it comes to blocking knowledge, though, both sides agree.  The book’s authors share the conservative activists’ desire to block kids from certain forms of knowledge.  They disagree, of course, about what to block.  Conservatives in this case—and in (almost) every case—hope that kids won’t find out yet that some people like to dress up in non-traditional clothes.  And progressives don’t want their young people to know that some people find non-traditional gender dressing weird or objectionable.

Both sides want to keep kids safe from certain forms of knowledge.  Both sides assume that they have common sense on their side.  But neither side would admit to blocking knowledge.

Yet that sort of knowledge-blocking has always been at the heart of our educational system.  It has also always been at the heart of our educational culture wars.  People disagree about what ideas should be kept from kids.  They also disagree about how old kids should be before they are introduced to certain forms of knowledge.

But everyone agrees—without even talking about it—that schools MUST block some information from kids.  At least as important as delivering knowledge to children, our schools exist to keep knowledge away from them.

Nine Best ILYBYGTH Ten-Best Lists

The year is skidding to a halt. As always, logorrhetes like your humble editor begin frantically compiling year-end lists. This year, ILYBYGTH has scratched together a list of the nine best end-of-year ten best lists. (I tried for ten, but I didn’t want to dilute these pages with chaff.) What were the year’s biggest stories in religion, education and culture?

First, for pure bravado, is Michael Petrilli’s “My Ten Best Articles of the Year.” The free-marketeer explains why poverty does not explain weak test scores, why schools should be more eager to get rid of disruptive students, and how schools can help fix the “marriage crisis.”

Next, Religion Dispatches offers a list (okay, it’s only six) of the biggest religion-related survey finds of 2015. Do Americans think the US is a Christian Nation? Do we think Christians are being discriminated against? Is the Pope a (helpful) Catholic? And more!

PRRI-Christian-Discrimination-chart

Who’s the victim here?

Number three: The Chronicle of Higher Education has gathered its own top ten stories. They are locked up, I’m afraid, but if you have a subscription it’s worth exploring. There are some biggies in here, including Steven Salaita’s reflections on his experience as a loud-mouth academic walking the line between “freedom” and “hate speech;” Laura Kipnis’s essay about campus revolutionaries eating their young (and their old); and thoughts on the reality of transitioning from one race to another.

Four: What did evangelicals think? Christianity Today put together a list of its top twenty stories. (Sorry, they didn’t read the ILYBYGTH rules, either.) What do evangelicals think about same-sex marriage? What makes a church a cult? Plus porn, Christian colleges, and missionaries.

And fifth, what were the science geeks at the National Center for Science Education up to in 2015? Minda Berbeco reviews their efforts to combat creationism, climate-change denialism, and other modern science bugbears.

What did 2015 look like from the perspective of a smart-mouthed progressive penguin?

tom  tomorrow 2015

Seeing clearly through nostalgic red visors…

What books did thoughtful non-conforming conservative intellectuals enjoy in 2015? Check out the American Conservative’s list of the year’s top reads.

Coming in at number eight, at ThinkProgress, Dylan Petrohilos gives us a sobering account of the numbers of people killed by police in 2015.

Last but not least, Lauren Turek at Religion in American History has compiled a list of religion panels at the upcoming meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta. It’s not a top-ten list, and it’s not a look back at the glories of 2015, but I’m including it anyway. For one thing, it starts off with our culture-wars panel (more on that to come). Also, listing all these retrospectives was getting a little maudlin, so I wanted to include something about the future.

School = Thanksgiving

Ah, Thanksgiving! Our favorite holiday of all. No gifts, no decorations, no sweat . . . just lots of food and friends and football. Your humble editor has retreated to an undisclosed location in scenic upstate New York to share the holiday with family.

simpsonsturkey

PS 101

Before we do, however, we must give in to our unhealthy compulsion to share some Thanksgiving reflections about schooling and culture wars. In the past, we’ve noted the central role Thanksgiving has come to play in those battles. Today, though, we want to point out a more basic connection: Why do we keep having culture wars over the teaching in our public schools? Because those schools are like Thanksgiving itself.

First, a review of our ILYBYGTH reflections about culture-wars and Turkey Day:

Today, let’s consider a more fundamental idea: Thanksgiving gives us a chance to see how public schools really function and why they serve so often as lightning rods for culture-war kerfuffles. Thanksgiving dinner might just be the best analogy for the way our schools work.

Because we know they don’t work the way anyone really wants them to.

For generations, progressive activists and intellectuals have dreamed of schools that would transform society. To pick just one example from my recent book, in the 1930s Harold Rugg at Teachers College Columbia hoped his new textbooks would transform America’s kids into thoughtful authentic small-d democrats. The books would encourage students to ask fundamental questions about power and political transparency. They would help young people see that true social justice would come from a healthy transformation of society, with power devolved to the people instead of to plutocrats.

For their part, generations of conservative activists have tried to create schools that would do something very different. There is no single, simple, definition of “conservatism,” of course, but by and large, as I also argue in my recent book, activists have promoted a vision of schooling as the place to teach kids the best of America’s traditions.

As one conservative intellectual asked during a turbulent 1970s school boycott,

Does not the Judeo-Christian culture that has made the United States the envy of the world provide a value system that is worth preserving?

Other conservatives shared this vision. Max Rafferty, one-time superintendent of public instruction in California and popular syndicated columnist, yearned for a golden age when

the main job of the schools was to transmit from generation to generation the cultural heritage of Western civilization.

Max Rafferty was never satisfied. Schools, he thought, failed in their proper job as the distributor of cultural treasures.

Harold Rugg wasn’t happy either. Neither he nor his progressive colleagues in the “Social Frontier” group ever succeeded in using the schools to “build a new social order.”

Why not? Because schools will not fulfill either progressive or conservative dreams. They are not distribution points for ideological imperatives. They are not outposts of thoughtful civilization scattered among a hillbilly hinterland.

Instead, it will help us all to think about schools as a sort of Thanksgiving dinner. At a Thanksgiving dinner, people of all sorts gather together to eat. Friends, family, co-workers, neighbors. Unless you’re lucky enough to escape to an undisclosed location in scenic upstate New York with only a few beloved family members and a dog, you will likely sit at a table with people with whom you don’t share much in common, intellectually.

In every family, you are likely to find some ardent conservatives and some earnest progressives. You are likely to find strong feelings about issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, evolution, and etc.

That’s why—until the booze kicks in, at least—most Thanksgiving dinners tend to stick with safe topics. We know we can disagree about football, for example. If my Green Bay Packers lose to the horrible Chicago Bears, my cousin knows he can tease me about that.

But we can’t disagree, out loud, at least, about things that really matter to us. If I have an imaginary uncle, for example, who thinks same-sex marriage means opening the door to pederasty and apocalypse, he knows he can’t tease me about it. Our disagreement on that issue won’t be something we can both just laugh about.

So our Thanksgiving dinner conversations, we hope, stick to fairly humdrum topics.

That might just be the best way to understand our schools, too. In spite of the dreams and hard work of intellectuals such as Max Rafferty and Harold Rugg, schools don’t push one ideological vision or another. At least, they tend not to do it very well or for very long.

Instead, they stick to the smallish circle of ideas that we as a society can roughly agree on.

This is why biology teachers tend not to teach a whole lot of evolution.

This is why health teachers tend not to teach a whole lot of sex.

This is why history teachers tend not to teach a whole lot of history.

There are plenty of exceptions, of course. But that also fits into our Thanksgiving analogy. Every once in a while, someone at Thanksgiving will insist on having it out…whatever “it” is. And our holiday turns into a smack-down, leaving everyone a little bruised and shaken.

Similarly, some teachers and some schools will occasionally push for a better vision of education, a more ideologically pure one. As I examine in my recent book, that is when we get culture-war flare-ups.

So as we sit around our tables and eat birds, let’s reflect on the ways this holiday might be the perfect analogy for schools. They are not change agents or tradition-upholders. At least, they are not only that.

Public schools are, rather, a meeting place in which we all implicitly agree to limit ourselves to non-controversial topics. We agree to keep the most interesting ideas, the most provocative ones, and, sadly, often the most educational ones, off the table.

Culture Wars Update: Who’s Winning?

Is the sky falling for progressives like me? In The Atlantic, journalist Molly Ball argues that liberals are losing the culture wars. The same topic just came up in our recent panel of educational historians. Is Ball right?

Four horsemen?

Four horsemen?

She looked at the results of the recent mid-term elections. In Ohio, voters rejected recreational marijuana. In Houston, they voted against gender-neutral bathrooms. In San Francisco, they booted an immigration-friendly sheriff. In Virginia, gun control struggled. In Kentucky, Kim Davis’s brand of in-your-face culture-war bluster helped win the governor’s office.

Ball’s conclusion?

taken together these results ought to inspire caution among liberals who believe their cultural views are widely shared and a recipe for electoral victory.

Fair enough. But not surprisingly, our all-star panel of historians came to different conclusions. To historians, these electoral losses don’t seem so cataclysmic. After all, consider the historical context: people are voting about making pot legal. Can you really deny Andrew Hartman’s argument that the echoes of the 1960s are dominated by the accents of hippies?

And yes, Houston lost its push for bathrooms that recognize the fluidity of gender. But look again: Who lost? The city in Texas with the openly gay mayor, that’s who.

We can make the same case for the other elections as well. Yes, conservatives here and there will have some successes in blocking the progressive changes that continue to roll through our society. Such blocking maneuvers, however, are a rearguard action.

Voting against gender-neutral bathrooms does not change the fact that we are now considering gender-neutral bathrooms. Thirty years ago—heck, even five years ago—that would not have been up for debate.

I think we need a more nuanced answer to the question of winning and losing when it comes to our culture wars. In my recent book, I looked at the educational activism of conservatives during the twentieth century. A lot of the time, they won. But just as with these recent cases, conservatives tended to succeed only in blocking or delaying certain limited sections of progressive change. Progressives still set the cultural agenda.

Here’s my two cents: first of all, I agree with our dean of educational historians, Jon Zimmerman. Jon argued this week that it is mostly meaningless to talk about winning or losing in this context. As does this Atlantic article, talk about winning or losing is usually a tactic to rally the faithful of each side, not a clear-headed analysis of shifting cultural trends.

Having said that, I think we can discern a century-long trend with these sorts of fights. In every case, conservatives might win or lose the specific battle. They do not win the war. What they do win, time after time, is the right to be listened to, the right to be considered part of the conversation about these issues.

For progressives like me and most of my friends, progressive change seems like an obviously good idea. Of course people should be able to smoke pot if they want. Of course transgender people should be able to use appropriate bathrooms. Of course guns should be controlled, immigrants welcomed, and same-sex marriage rights should be honored.

When we see election results like this one, though, we are reminded that not everyone agrees with us. When we see how strongly people disagree, we should not tear our hair and gnash our teeth. We should not lament the narrow-mindedness of our fellow citizens.

Rather, we should recognize the vast differences between Americans when it comes to these issues. As we do here at ILYBYGTH, we should do our best to understand and even sympathize with those voters who disagree with us.

After all, the only real victory in our bitter culture wars will come when we can respect those with whom we disagree.

The E-Word

You don’t have to love your enemies. You don’t even have to like them. But a founding principle of ILYBYGTH is that we should all try to understand those with whom we disagree. Indeed, as journalist and FOILYBYGTH* Trey Kay notes in a recent episode of his podcast Us & Them, there is a critical difference between disagreeing with someone and calling him or her an “enemy.”

And don't forget about frenemies!

And don’t forget about frenemies!

If you haven’t yet checked out Us & Them, it’s worth a listen. Different episodes explore issues near and dear to SAGLRROILYBYGTH, such as neo-confederate history, gay rights, and conservative textbook watchdogs Mel and Norma Gabler.

In the most recent episode, Kay explores the question of the enemy. As Kay reports, these days it’s not shocking to hear leading politicians describe the opposing party as the “enemy.” What sort of tone does that set for our day-to-day civil discourse? Can I have lunch with someone who is an “enemy?” Could I work on a school board with one?

Trey includes parts of a conversation he had with your humble editor. We talked about the origins of the name of this blog, and about the difficulties of understanding those with whom we disagree. As I told Trey, this blog is, in part, an effort for secular folks like me to understand what conservative religious people might mean if they say “I love you, but you’re going to hell.”

As he included in the segment, I think there are more important goals than simply winning culture-war battles. If we disagree about issues of religion and politics, we need at least to try to include those with whom we disagree in a civil discussion. We can’t do that if we resort to knee-jerk demonization.

That’s easy enough to do with things we don’t really care about. But what about when it hits home? What about when it is a question of what our kids are learning in school, or what rights we have? For example, for creationists it can be very difficult (I imagine) to relax and talk civilly to someone who wants to teach their kids that humans were not created by God. For people like me, it is enormously difficult not to demonize opponents who don’t agree with us about same-sex marriage rights.

So what do we do? To start, we can listen to the Us & Them podcast.

*Friend of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell, natch.

Are the Culture Wars History?

I don’t get out much. So when I was invited to participate in a panel at the annual meeting of the History of Education Society, I jumped at the chance. Especially when it gave me the chance to rub shoulders with some nerd all-stars.

Meet me in Saint Looey...

Meet me in Saint Looey…

Our panel will include four authors of books familiar to SAGLRROILYBYGTH. First, Jon Zimmerman will tell us something about global sex ed from his new book, Too Hot to Handle.zimmerman too hot to handle

Then, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela will keep the sex-ed ball rolling while adding in some bilingual ed as she talks about her book, Classroom Wars.petrzela classroom wars

Next, Andrew Hartman will share some insights about education and culture wars from his blockbuster War for the Soul of America.Hartman

Last, I’ll talk a little bit about what it has meant to be “conservative” when it comes to education, from my new book.

What will we talk about? Hard to say until we get there, but the theme that ties these books together is that of educational culture wars. What have Americans (and people worldwide) seen fit to teach their kids about touchy subjects such as sex and God? Who has been allowed to make decisions about school?

One disagreement we might have could be about the winners and losers. If there are such things as educational culture wars, we all have different conclusions about who has won. Jon Zimmerman argues that kids overall—especially in the United States—get very little sex ed, due to consistent activism against it. I think, too, that conservatives have been able to exert veto power over many big educational programs. Both Andrew and Natalia, though, say that by and large progressive ideas have come out the winner in these battles.

What do you think:

  • Are there such things as educational culture wars?
  • If so, are they all in the past?
  • And, maybe most interesting to most people…who won?

Required Reading: Classroom Wars

What should schools teach?  How should they teach it?  Who gets to decide?  These are the questions that keep SAGLRROILYBYGTH up at night, and now we have a great new book to shed light on the infinitely complicated ways they play out in real life.

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela’s new book, Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture examines battles in California over bilingual ed and sex ed during the 1960s and 1970s.  As Petrzela explains,

This book focuses on bilingual (Spanish-language) and sex education in California in order to understand how grass-roots citizens came to define the schoolhouse and the family as politicized sites during the late 1960s and 1970s.

Full disclosure: Petrzela and I are friends and colleagues.  We’ve worked together for several years now, and we’ll be doing some presentations together in upcoming months at academic conferences about history, education, and culture wars.  Even if we weren’t friends, though, I would love this book.   petrzela classroom wars

For one thing, Petrzela’s careful examination of California’s educational politics shows us the ways culture-war politics are not somehow “natural,” but rather develop over time due to specific historical circumstances and activism.

For example, as she describes, in the early 1960s bilingual ed had lots of support among conservatives.  Arch-conservative Max Rafferty pushed for it, and even as late as 1968, many California legislators touted bilingual ed as the “American thing to do.”  Soon, however, bilingual education was tied together with leftist radicalism.  Students in 1968 staged huge “blow-out” protests in LA, carrying “Viva la Revolucion!” signs and demanding that all Anglo teachers be fired.  As Petrzela puts it,

In the two years following the BEA’s [Bilingual Education Act] passage and the blowouts [student walkouts], bilingual-bicultural education evolved from a relatively uncontroversial issue that garnered significant bipartisan support to a lightning rod dividing and defining conservatives and liberals.

Among activists, too, we need to be careful before we assume too much.  In the education bureaucracy of California, for instance, Petrzela introduces us to the complicated positions of folks such as Eugene Gonzalez, associate superintendent and chief of the division of instruction.  Gonzalez was close with conservative leader Max Rafferty, and like Rafferty he spoke out against the methods used by radical student protesters.  But he also continued to push for better and fairer education for latino/as in California schools.  Other Mexican-American activists, such as Alfred Ramirez, refused to go along with the protesting students at all.  He pushed Gonzalez to crack down on the Latino protesters and to get rid of bilingual programs entirely.

Nor were California’s educational culture wars a simple, stereotypical battle between progressive teachers and students on one side against conservative activists on the other.  That may often be the case, but as Petrzela recounts, in 1970 conservative teachers in LA founded their own union, the Professional Educators of Los Angeles.  And, though one conservative teacher lamented her position as a “minority among educators,” Petrzela also reveals that students, too, were split.  In at least one case, a group of conservative students gathered to denounce the “leftist-liberal bias” of their teachers.

We also see in these pages a clearer-than-usual vision of what conservative activists wanted.  At root, Petrzela shows us, conservatives felt as if they had too often been frozen out of discussions of sex ed and bilingual ed.  They felt they had not been included, not been consulted.  Many times, conservative activists and parents worried that a blundering school administration was trying to insert itself between parents and children.

When this wasn’t the case, many conservatives did not protest against sex education.  In conservative San Diego County, for example, sex ed was not at all controversial.  Part of the reason was because the teachers had a strong reputation in the whole community as family women with “high moral standards.”  By the end of the 1970s, Petrzela tells us, policy-makers had figured it out.  By then, most sex ed curricula were no longer so ferociously controversial, largely because parents and conservative organizations had been consulted beforehand.

Petrzela also tackles one of the toughest questions of these educational culture wars: Who won?  She argues that over all, over time, progressives tended to score victories.  In about half the cases of controversy over sex ed, Petrzela found, California districts actually expanded their sex ed programs after the blow-ups.

In every case, Petrzela makes her case well that schools matter.  As she puts it,

In the 1960s and 1970s, militant Chicanos in East Los Angeles, suburban housewives in Anaheim, and political aspirants as varied as Max Rafferty and Julian Nava all pinned their hopes on the public schools as the primary institution for cultivating an ethical, informed, moral next generation.

For all of us who want to look beyond the headlines of America’s continuing educational culture wars, this book is a good place to start.

Conservatives against Kim Davis

Which side are you on?

That’s the question that fuels most of our culture-war animosity. Instead, the question we should all be asking is this: What’s the right thing to do? In the case of same-sex refusenik Kim Davis, some conservative intellectuals and pundits are willing to break ranks and see the bigger picture.

In case you’ve been milking the last warm days of summer and haven’t seen this story, Kim Davis is the Kentucky county clerk who has been jailed and released for her refusal to issue same-sex marriage certificates. Opportunistic conservative politicians such as Mike Huckabee have promoted Davis as a conservative Christian hero, stage-managing Davis’s release as an American triumph, equal parts Christianity Triumphant and Rocky III.

Governor Huckabee’s shameful pandering to frustrated Christian voters should be an embarrassment for every conservative out there. But progressives also could stay a little classier in this case. For those like me on the progressive side of things, the furor and venom over the Kim Davis case burst onto our Facebook feeds like a sweaty middle-school pimple. I don’t agree with Davis’s refusal to do her job, but I also think it is counter-productive and petty to attack Davis’s hairstyle.

Missing the point...

Missing the point…

We could all learn a lesson from a few conservatives who refuse to conform to their culture-war scripts. Fox News anchor Shep Smith, for example, earned the ire of conservative viewers for pointing out the obvious hypocrisy in the case. Critiquing the Huckabee rally, Smith commented,

They set this up as a religious play again. This is the same crowd that says, ‘We don’t want Sharia law, don’t let them tell us what to do, keep their religion out of our lives and out of our government.’

Predictably, conservative Fox News viewers reacted furiously, calling Smith a “puke” and accusing him of “anti-Christian bias.”

But Smith was not alone. Conservative intellectuals also took issue with Davis’s brand of publicity-hogging culture-warriorism. Writing in the pages of The American Conservative, crunchy conservative Rod Dreher warned that Davis had ignored the central point of civil disobedience. Dreher argues,

It’s clear that there are many Christians who support Kim Davis because she’s doing something, even if that something is arguably counterproductive. This is unwise. . . . If the public comes to think of religious liberty as the constitutionally guaranteed right to ignore the Constitution whenever it suits us, the cause of religious liberty — which is guaranteed by the First Amendment — is going to suffer tremendously. Conservatives are supposed to understand the difference between the vice of cowardice and the virtue of prudence. If religious liberty means that even officers of the state can defy the law without consequence, then it makes every individual a potential tyrant.

Writing from the conservative bastion of the Southern Baptist Convention, Russell Moore and Andrew T. Walker made a similar point. While Moore and Walker bemoaned the “judicial overstep” and “government inaction” that led to this situation, they did not excuse Davis’s reckless behavior. “We must recognize,” they note,

the crucial difference between the religious liberty claims of private citizens and government officials. Let us be clear: Government employees are entitled to religious liberty, but religious liberty is never an absolute claim, especially when it comes to discharging duties that the office in question requires. While government employees don’t lose their constitutional protection simply because they work for the government, an individual whose office requires them to uphold or execute the law is a separate matter than the private citizen whose conscience is infringed upon as a result of the law. It means the balancing test is different when it comes to government officials because of their roles as agents of the state. Government officials have a responsibility to carry out the law. When an official can no longer execute the laws in question due to an assault on conscience, and after all accommodating measures have been exhausted, he or she could work for change as a private citizen, engaging the democratic process in hopes of changing the questionable law.

We must be very clear about the distinctions here between persons acting as an agent of the state and persons being coerced by the state in their private lives. If the definition becomes so murky that we cannot differentiate between the freedom to exercise one’s religion and the responsibility of agents of the state to carry out the law, religious liberty itself will be imperiled.

For these brave conservative commentators, agreement with Davis’s opinion of same-sex marriage did not mean an automatic endorsement of Davis’s actions. All of us could learn from their example.

Those of us who consider ourselves progressives should commit to examine every case with the same gimlet eye. Just because we agree with someone’s position in general does not mean we must agree with their actions in every case.

Conservatives should be reminded to differentiate between today’s headlines and the big picture. Civil disobedience is a right and duty of us all, at times. But not every act of civil disobedience is equal, and civil disobedience has never meant simply flouting the laws we don’t like.

More important, we must all be willing to speak up against our own “side” when it is in the wrong. The first question should not be “Which side are you on?” but always “What is the right thing to do?”

The Kids Aren’t Alright…with Transgender

My Fellow Progressives: What if time isn’t on our side? We tend to think that each new generation will get cooler, more tolerant, more progressive. But what about those stubborn conservative kids who consistently disprove our assumptions? A new student protest in Missouri shows once again that young people are not somehow automatically progressive.

Who is the future here?

Who is the future here?

Academic historians learnt this lesson the hard way. Beginning in the 1930s, liberal academics assumed that the fundamentalists of the 1920s had melted away in the glare of modernity. In their liberal imaginations, historians such as Norman Furniss explained that fundamentalism had died away, a vestige of an older, stupider time.

For many liberal historians, the fact that they no longer saw fundamentalists on their campuses or in the headlines of their newspapers proved their case. It backed up their assumptions that the modern world would squeeze out people who embraced a decidedly old-fashioned way of reading the Bible.

Of course, fundamentalists hadn’t died away after the 1920s. Beginning in the later 1950s, evangelists such as Billy Graham brought the fundamentalist tradition back to America’s headlines and center stage. It took a new generation of historians, many of them raised in fundamentalist families, to explain what had happened. Writers such as Ernest Sandeen, George Marsden, and Joel Carpenter demonstrated the continuing strength and vitality of American fundamentalism.

Protestant fundamentalism, these historians showed, was a thoroughly modern phenomenon. In the face of progressive assumptions that people would naturally become more secular and more morally sophisticated, lots of Americans actually became more religious and more firmly moored in Biblical morality.

Progressives today share a similar short-sighted demographic hangover. Many of us, even those of us too young to have lived through the social movements of the 1960s, remember the vibe of youth power. As Andrew Hartman has argued so eloquently in his new book, the ideas of the 1960s fueled much of the later culture war vitriol. In the face of much evidence to the contrary, it was often assumed by 1960s culture warriors (and their successors) that youth was somehow naturally progressive.

Not your father's GOP...

Not your father’s GOP…

To be fair, my fellow progressives aren’t entirely wrong. We tend to assume that young people will be less anti-gay, less racist, less conservative, and we can point to good poll data to back it up. As Pew reported last year,

in addition to the [Millennial] generation’s Democratic tendency, Millennials who identify with the GOP are also less conservative than Republicans in other generations: Among the roughly one-third of Millennials who affiliate with or lean Republican, just 31% have a mix of political values that are right-of-center, while about half (51%) take a mix of liberal and conservative positions and 18% have consistently or mostly liberal views. Among all Republicans and Republican leaners, 53% have conservative views; in the two oldest generations, Silents and Boomers, about two-thirds are consistently or mostly conservative.

But there’s a big problem embedded in these kids of poll data. Though many young people tend toward more liberal views, there are still enormous percentages of people who buck the trend. The recent protest in Missouri can illustrate the ways young people can and will embrace socially conservative ideas.

In that case, a transgender high-school senior, Lila Perry, had been allowed to use the girls’ bathroom. Students walked out in protest. The students and their parents, supported by outside groups such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, tend to consider Lila to be still male, in spite of her identification as female. As one activist parent put it, his daughters encountered an “intact male” in the locker room.

In spite of what we might expect, we don’t see in this case progressive young people fighting against the bureaucracy. Instead, the bureaucracy in this case moved quickly to establish a policy protecting the rights of transgender students. In reply, conservative students insisted on the rights of “real” girls to be protected from such students.

If history is any guide, as more young people become progressive, the conservative holdouts will become more firmly attached to their conservative principles. Conservative young people will become more likely to take action. Protests like the one at Hillsboro High School will become more common.